A few quick thoughts on Sacha Baron Cohen’s broadside against the social media companies

An effective speech by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on how social media companies have become “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”


A couple of quick, initial thoughts:

Yes, the platforms have been used by racists to spread their message. But the same platforms and the same features of those platforms (primarily, ease and low cost of publishing) facilitate other kinds of content, much (most) of it life- and democracy-enhancing. These are great technologies that are being abused, rather than inherently bad innovations.

Cohen points out that the ‘silicone six’ — the unelected, American heads of Alphabet, Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter — can control what two-thirds of the planet can see. He suggests that democratically elected politicians should have a say on what appears. This is persuasive, but when Mark Zuckerberg (or whoever) resists the influence of American politicians over his platform, we should remember that he is at the same time resisting the influence of the governments of China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, & cetera, too.

Not to mention the authoritarian tendencies within the US system. Cohen points out that Donald Trump nearly designated Antifa as a terrorist group. If the algorithms and human fact-checkers that Cohen recommends were to be deployed by the social media companies, it would be very easy for someone like Trump to ensure that Antifa content was added to the list of things to be removed. I recall that for a while, the F.B.I. designated #BlackLivesMatter as activists as extremists.

Finally, if someone thinks it’s necessary to say, as Cohen does here, that his complaints are “not about free speech” then I usually find that, somewhere in the argument, it is very much about free speech. Cohen is absolutely proposing a form of censorship here. We cannot deny that. Instead, we must ask ourselves whether it is a justified censorship. Free speech is not an absolute right, but a qualified one. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to censor, and advocating genocide should obviously be on that list, as the promotion of paedophilia is already. But those bright black content categories do not pose a problem. It’s in the content grey areas where things become tricky. Human society finds it extremely difficult to draw a consistent line around offensive but permitted content — why do we think algorithms can do it better?

That said, mass global communication has brought about huge problems for our democracies and our discourse. Ignorance and racism are on the rise. Cohen is not wrong about that, and his speech is the best elucidation of the problem I’ve seen in a long time.

2 Replies to “A few quick thoughts on Sacha Baron Cohen’s broadside against the social media companies”

  1. I don’t have much to add; he has elucidated the problem well – then gone on to prove he hasn’t anymore ideas than a cardinal in the Holy Roman Empire seeking to control blasphemy.

    At any time, Zuckerberg can declare that his invention will henceforth be given over to public control, out of private hands, and go stand next to Saint Berners Lee. Not a lot will change.

    The actual opinion formers and influencers themselves need to be reminded regularly about the dangers of using lies made for effect, choosing convenient enemies and fermenting hate. I really don’t care what is on Alex Jone’s website – I do care that our actual leaders tweet.

  2. Thank you Rob for bringing this speech to my attention . I found what he was saying quite compelling. Having listened to various news broadcasts and read various newspapers in recent days I found, amongst others , his comment, “we have lost, it seems, a shared sense of basic facts on which democracy depends” so apposite

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